He slept for hours but never felt rested, he said. Everyday actions such as using the remote control to change the television station became too strenuous for him. Attending classes was nearly impossible. Rea’s condition got so bad at times in high school and college that he turned to a regimen of “aggressive” dietary supplements and a Cherokee medicine man to treat what doctors said was chronic fatigue syndrome. But the medicine man’s advice and the supplements he took each day helped him, he said. And in some ways, they also changed his career path.
Now 32, Rea is the owner of four Nature’s Outlet stores, located in Salem, Southwest Roanoke County, Northwest Roanoke and Martinsville. He is still in the process of buying the business from his parents, but they have relinquished all control of the stores to him. Rea, of South Roanoke, said he strives to help others find ways to make themselves feel better. He stresses that he isn’t a doctor and has no medical training. Instead he considers himself to be a nutrition consultant or counselor. He’s developed his knowledge through firsthand use of many health products and through research he’s done about which nutrients the body needs. “I feel fortunate,” Rea said. “I have a business where customers can come back and be excited and tell how a product has had a positive impact on their lives.” Rea’s goal is to make Nature’s Outlet “the Nordstrom of nutrition.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Rea ended up owning the Nature’s Outlet stores. Though he didn’t use dietary supplements and health food regularly until he was in high school, Rea grew up around the products.
In the mid-1970s, Charlie Rea’s grandmother, who lived in Florida, discovered that dietary supplements and other nonprescription products eased her arthritis. Her doctors dismissed the results, but she was so pleased that she opened a store selling health products. Dennis Rea, Charlie Rea’s father, wasn’t convinced that the products worked. But after Dennis Rea talked to some of his mother’s customers during a visit, he became a believer and quit his job in sales a few years later. He and his wife, Cheryl Rea, opened Roanoke Valley Health Foods – later renamed Nature’s Outlet – on Brambleton Avenue. Within a decade the Reas had opened Nature’s Outlet stores in other parts of the Roanoke Valley and moved the original store to its current location in Promenade Park shopping center in Southwest Roanoke County. While growing up, Charlie Rea helped out at the Nature’s Outlet stores. But at the time he had no intention of making it his career. Rea, who studied finance and management at the University of Virginia, returned to the Roanoke Valley after graduation and worked in several sales and management positions at Nature’s Outlet stores. He moved back to Charlottesville and from 1998 to 2000 worked as a sales representative for Nature’s Way, a company that specializes in natural products. In 2000, he started the ownership process for the Nature’s Outlet stores because his parents wanted to retire. “I just started doing it and never looked back,” Rea said. The shelves in the Nature’s Outlet on Electric Road are packed with healthful snacks, natural hygiene products for body and face, organic foods and thousands of dietary supplements filled with a variety of herbs, minerals and vitamins.
Rea considers himself a “gatekeeper” for which items are offered in his stores. The manufacturing of many dietary supplements is not highly regulated, Rea said, so he tries to make sure a product’s quality is as good as a company’s claims. That job has gotten increasingly hard over the years, Rae said. When his father started the store, there were only about 3,000 supplements on the market, he said. Now there are hundreds of thousands. One of the major problems Rae finds is that companies embellish the healthfulness of their products, he said. Many popular supplements, for example, don’t contain enough of a particular vitamin to make an impact on a person’s system, despite what the labels say. Rea and his employees try to visit manufacturing plants to learn more about a product. When companies refuse to let him visit, that usually signals a red flag, Rea said. In addition to visiting plants, he attends seminars and trade shows and invites companies to come to the stores to talk to him and employees about their products. “They’re just up-to-date on everything,” said customer Pam Draper, a 46-year-old Southwest Roanoke County resident. “It’s fun to go in there.” Rea frequently hears from customers that many of the supplements are too expensive. He compares buying supplements to buying produce; if you buy the first thing you see because it’s cheapest then you may be sacrificing quality. Samantha Fortune, manager of the Nature’s Outlet on Williamson Road, said she’s found that buying the more expensive, whole food, multivitamins and other high quality supplements are a better value than chemical-based supplements that cost a few dollars. Fortune, 28, has had Hodgkin’s Disease, thyroid problems and sports-related injuries, yet she’s felt great for the past few years. She attributes it to a supplement routine that consists of about 15 products. Fortune considers it a preventive measure. “I look at it as an investment in my health and in my future,” said Fortune, of Salem. “It’s a very proactive way to approach health.”